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'We need to take a tin-opener to the top of our minds': Enda McNulty on elite performance

The former Armagh All-Ireland winner talks forensically about sports psychology, motivation and what makes the best.

Image: James Crombie/INPHO

SITTING ACROSS THE table from Enda McNulty, I catch myself early on.

We’ve all seen the clip. Hundreds of times. ’We fight for that inch’. We get it.

The motivational techniques, the inspirational stuff – it tends to irritate us after a while. We’re wary of over-complicating. We remain steadfastly suspicious of keeping an open-mind. It’s not long before the begrudgery and sneering starts.

McNulty, more than most, knows all about that scene from Any Given Sunday. His former Armagh coach Joe Kernan used to show it to the players on the team bus throughout that monumental 2002 All-Ireland campaign.

Source: umterps3511/YouTube

So McNulty is long past sneering. His father graduated from Queen’s University with a degree in psychology. Since his teens, he’s been heavily immersed in the topic.

He didn’t need any encouragement from Kernan when it came to clawing with his fingernails for that inch.

Years before the Cork hurlers wore red wristbands with ‘Gach Uile Liathroid’ written on them, Armagh were already at it. McNulty would go further. He’d have individual letters on his wrist tape. Each letter corresponded to something he wanted to achieve during the game.

In certain circles, there’s been an inevitably raised-eyebrow regarding McNulty’s subsequent career as a high-performance specialist.

In 2005, he established Motiv8 and began advising a host of sports clients. His and the company’s reputation quickly skyrocketed to such an extent that it now employs 30 people and 90% of its business is gleaned from the corporate sector.

The easy thing is to sneer, of course. Less than a minute into our conversation, I do.

McNulty references ‘clutch or pressure moments’. And I catch myself. Buzz words already. Cliches already. But the more McNulty talks, the more he veers away from convention. The way he analyses elite performance is a marked contrast from the norm. It’s studious and forensic and absorbing. Sometimes, it’s scientific. Sometimes not. But it’s always engaging.

“Either we heal as a team or we are going to crumble”.

He’s passionate about collaboration, something he feels doesn’t happen enough in Ireland. Instead of following the think-tank model that exists in other countries, he thinks we’re resting on our laurels. Waiting for inspiration rather than going out and finding it.

“We don’t have enough of a collaborative approach to performance”, he says.

I’m not just talking about sport. One of the organisations we work with is Intel. Can you imagine what we can learn from them? Intel have one of the leading manufacturing plants in the world. They are producing world-leading performance every single day. Another of our clients is Riverdance. Padraic Moyles is the lead dancer. I believe soccer players can learn a lot from Riverdance. This guy has done over 5,500 performances. That’s a lot of caps.

We haven’t learned enough from GB in what they’re doing in terms of that joined-up approach from what they can learn from the best performance crucibles in the world. We’re too insular. We need to take the blinkers off. We need to take a tin-opener to the top of our minds and say ‘What is possible?’ We’ve got some of the most talented athletes in the world. We’ve got some of the most amazing sports organisations in the world. If we’d only bang our heads together and have positive collisions.”

“We are in hell right now, gentlemen, believe me. And we can stay here and get the shit kicked out of us or we can fight our way back into the light.”

Psychology is a sexy, modern facet of sport. Like analytics. But it can often be used as a mere PR exercise rather than a coherent element of a long-term performance strategy.

In 2014, just prior to the World Cup in Brazil, the FA brought in the renowned sports psychiatrist Steve Peters to work with the England players.

He was tasked with conjuring a miracle with limited, controlled access to the group. It was always a long-shot.

“I think a lot of things in sport are about the optics more than the substance”, McNulty says.

England v Iceland - UEFA Euro 2016 - Round of 16 - Stade de Nice Source: Jonathan Brady

“The best performance organisations in the world make sure everything is tied together. It becomes a fabric of the culture. Team GB in the Olympics – the sports psychologists wouldn’t have been a once-off, a one-hit wonder. It would’ve been the last eight years. I was in Loughborough University with David Gillick about 10 years ago and at that stage, the athletes were working with sports psychologists in advance of the London Olympics and they’ve been consistent with that right up to the present day.

I think the English soccer team is a prime example of a team that choked under pressure, that weren’t ready mentally, that have consistently under-performed on big occasions, that have malfunctioned now coming up on six World Cup/European Championships. It’s incredible. So how can we have one of the most experienced brain mechanics in the world working with a team that needed a brain mechanic and they’ve consistently under-performed?

“It’s not just psychological. It’s cultural, it’s technical, it’s tactical, it’s leadership. I found the lack of technical skills more amazing than the mental. The teams I played on – we knew being mentally tough wasn’t good enough. You could have the most mentally tough team in the world but no leaders. I can be calm, composed, concentrated, confident in the last five minutes but if I don’t know how to scream at my full-back line to say ‘Step up guys – do whatever you need to do to get the ball in the next tackle here’…The leadership needs to be merged with the mental toughness. With English soccer, I don’t believe it’s just the mental frailties of the team. There are not enough leaders on the park – you saw that against Iceland. Where were the leaders? Did you see anyone rally the troops? Did you see anyone screaming like Kevin McManamon at Croke Park this year? Did you see anyone communicating? Did you see anyone bringing the guys in and making the midfield cohesive? I didn’t see any sign of it.”

Elite performers have the capability to immediately refocus after an error. It’s quickly forgotten about it, erased from the memory bank. Even across various strands of performance, the rules remain the same among the best.

“There’s a similar technique but it varies how it’s executed”, McNulty says.

Rugby Union - Rugby World Cup 2015 - Final - New Zealand v Australia - Twickenham Source: PA WIRE

“Dan Carter, after a mistake, will do this (slaps his thigh)  - which means ‘Delete the mistake’. It’s a little trigger mechanism to get back into the moment. Some of the elite Irish rugby players we work with are incredible at getting a breath at the right moment to centre them in the middle of the now. One, deep, quality centering breath that settles you into what’s happening here and now.”

Still, even the best can freeze.

“Now I can’t make you do it. You gotta look at the guy next to you. Look into his eyes. Now, I think you are going to see a guy who will go that inch with you. You are going to see a guy who will sacrifice himself for this team because he knows when it comes down to it, you are gonna do the same thing for him.”

In his autobiography ‘Red’, Gary Neville discusses his 85-cap England career. He refers to it as a ‘waste of time’, detailing how too many players were plagued by the fear of failure rather than motivated by the prospect of success.

‘Motivation’ is a term flippantly thrown around sports discussions. But it’s a nuanced concept.

For Dave Brailsford, GM of Team Sky, he argues that elite performers will train even without feeling motivated. It’s the commitment to the craft that’s the crucial step. Carlo Ancelotti says a manager’s job is to demotivate players, that the elite are self-motivated and individually driven – not coaxed into producing top performances.

And yet, occasionally, some athletes will push harder in response to negative comments or perceived criticism. But that’s only a ‘short-term motivator’, according to McNulty.

“I met Arsene Wenger about three or four years ago at a conference and he spoke about motivational stamina”, he says.

Soccer - UEFA Champions League - Group D - Arsenal v Borussia Dortmund Source: PA ARCHIVE IMAGES

“What does that mean? Well, it’s easy to activate someone’s motivation. We can all be motivated for the next month – get fit, get lean or do extras on the football pitch or the golf course. That’s activation. But intensity of the activation. Is it high intensity of motivation (raises voice to a roar) – ‘We’ll fucking do whatever it takes to be unbelievably successful every single day’ or (drops voice) is it low intensity motivation where we don’t really give a damn?

“And then there’s the consistency of the motivation. Someone’s negative comments in the media gives you a little spurt. Maybe for a night. I don’t believe, from spending my whole life in this space, that you can drive yourself for 10 or 12 years on what someone said in the media. The best coaches – the Fergusons, the Mourinhos, the Codys, the Phil Jacksons, the Joe Schmidts, even going back to Barcelona and what that club was built on in the early days – I don’t think it was built on what somebody said in the media. It was built on that sweet spot of motivation which is striving every day to be the best you can be. That’s sustainable. It’s something that can give you energy every day. I would never set out to motivate someone negatively. Let’s get into the middle of the arteries of the players’ motivation rather than being on the veneer of the surface of some bullshit.”

Consistency. Being the best. We were the best at boxing. But what happened in Rio? Why did the performance levels drop? Too many distractions?

“I wouldn’t say it was only social media but a medley of small factors,” McNulty says.

Michael Conlan following his defeat to Vladimir Nikitin

“Obviously Billy Walsh, the uncertainty over the last 12 months, maybe that every sports organisation in the world – even the one I played under in Armagh – when you raise the bar and become very successful, if you don’t raise the bar again the next year or over the next four years, you’re going to get obliterated”.

“In any fight it is the guy who is willing to die who is going to win that inch.”

Social media is becoming an increasingly sizable issue for McNulty and other performance consultants to get to grips with.

Some athletes find it difficult to let go. There’s a dependency.

“In some cases, we’ve found it scary, to be honest”, McNulty says.

You could have an athlete coming to you on the morning of a major, major sporting event – we’re talking about the biggest you can imagine – and they’re saying ‘I just can’t believe this trend about me across social media this week – I’m really gutted by it.’ Or, ‘It’s really heightening my own expectations – they’re saying there’s a big contract on the line because of this performance.’  So we’re meeting that on a really, really frequent basis. In fact, when it’s not mentioned we’re more surprised.

“My approach to social media before an Olympics or before a major tournament would be that it needs to be strongly tapered down. The same way a strength and conditioning coach would talk about tapering down a week or two before a tournament. Similarly, their mental conditioning would be tapered down – we’re not going to give them a lot of mental preparation a week before a big event. Social media should be tapered down so that it’s non-existent two days before. That’s what the best athletes are doing, by the way. They’re literally switching off. They don’t have the tweets coming through, they don’t have the Facebook messages coming through. They delete the apps from their phones for those three days.

“The young superstars we work with are amazing at that. The players who may have been inconsistent in their performances would say ‘Well, I like my social media the day before – I like to log on and tweet and browse’. We’re saying ‘Sorry – why are you doing that? That doesn’t make any sense’. You’d never tell someone not to do it because it’s too much like a school teacher and authoritarian. You would try and say to them ‘Let’s understand why we’re asking you to taper it down significantly’”.

McNulty talks a lot about the preparation timeline for athletes and how the days immediately before an event should be calm and composed, both mentally and physically.

By that stage, the hard work should be done. Trying to cram before a big exam is always unhelpful and stressful.

“The computer should be programmed three days before the big performance”, he says.

Enda McNulty and Peter Canavan Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“At that stage – as we tell the athletes or performers – close it. Take everything off the table. You’re ready to perform. Physically, mentally, technically, emotionally, tactically – you’re ready. Rather than the night before – ‘I’m going to do my visualisation’. Or the night before – ‘I have to get myself ready for those moments that matter in the last 30 seconds’. It’s too late. At that stage, the game is over.

It’s like me trying to get fit the night before an All-Ireland final. It’s not going to happen. If you’re trying to fine-tune your skills the night before an All-Ireland final, you’re in trouble. I come at this from a place of pain. Three nights before the All-Ireland final in 2003, I was on a pitch working with a coach in a 1-on-1 to help me get sharper in preparation for marking Peter Canavan. And it was an unmitigated disaster. This old coach of mine – Dessie Ryan – is the best defensive coach I’ve come across. He was getting my footwork fine-tuned, my hands fine-tuned, getting me mentally fine-tuned – amazing coaching. The problem was it was the wrong time. It should’ve been two weeks before, not three days. I went into that final with a flu because I was tired, jaded and had done too much work.”

“The margin for error is so small. I mean, one half step too late or too early you don’t quite make it. One half second too slow or too fast and you don’t quite catch it. The inches we need are everywhere around us.” 

The search for the inches has led to a significant rise in sports science, performance psychology, data analysis across professional and amateur performance.

Can McNulty envisage a time when coaches will return to sticking the back page of the local newspaper on the dressing-room wall as a motivational tool? Or when man-management reverts to allowing the players a few beers on their way to a game?

“I remember an old mental coach of mine back in the day using the phrase ‘The revolution is going to be back to basics’”, he says.

“Our technology, our sports sciences, the sophistication in terms of our preparation is now almost 10x what it was when I finished playing four years ago. It’s incredible. But the basics still apply. All the other stuff is really only window-dressing. Get the basics right 99.9 times out of 100 and you’ll stand out in any performance crucible. Is it your tackle technique in rugby? As a Gaelic footballer, is it keeping your man scoreless? I can do all the other sexy, cool stuff but if I can’t keep Peter Canavan scoreless then I shouldn’t be on the team. I think sometimes we lose our focus on that but it will never be taken away from us.”

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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